The Guatemalan Worry Dolls Story: How to Help Anxious Kids

The Guatemalan Worry Dolls Story: How to Help Anxious Kids

Whether you wish to learn more about traditional Central American folk art or help children cope with worries and anxieties, Guatemalan worry dolls are a timeless tool to help kids work through big feelings.

This post will explore the history and story of Guatemalan worry dolls and clear up common myths and misconceptions. We’ll also discuss where to buy worry dolls and how to use them effectively to support children through their fears.

The Guatemalan Worry Dolls Story
"Do they work?  Guatemalan Worry Dolls: A modern guide for helping anxious kids!  by Such a Little While)
Text overlay images of handcrafted Guatemalan worry dolls and traditional brightly colored and striped Guatemalan textiles.
Pin this image to your social-emotional learning board on Pinterest to refer back to later!

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What are Guatemalan Worry Dolls?

Worry dolls (sometimes referred to as “trouble dolls”) are a centuries-old way to help children with anxiety. In Guatemalan culture, tiny, handmade dolls are given to an anxious child by a trusted adult, who explains that the doll will take care of all their worries.

The child then tells the doll their worries and puts it under their pillow at night. The idea behind worry dolls, stemming from Mayan legend, is that the doll will “worry for them” while they rest. As a result, the child can wake up refreshed and calm.

In Guatemala, worry dolls are known as muñecas de la preocupación or muñecas quitapenas, which translates to “worry dolls” or “sorrow dolls” respectively.

While different cultures have adapted worry dolls over the years, Guatemalan dolls are typically made of cloth with embroidered features and wear traditional clothing and textiles from the Guatemalan highlands.

The Guatemalan Worry Dolls Story:  6 Traditional Guatemalan Worry Dolls by UPAVIM Crafts
Traditional Guatemalan Worry Dolls by UPAVIM Crafts

Do worry dolls work?

A common misconception is that worry dolls are bad luck or involve voodoo magic. In reality, worry dolls can serve as an effective therapeutic tool for children.

The American Psychological Association even published an article noting the research behind the power of verbalizing emotions, citing Guatemalan worry dolls as a culture-spanning example.

“…verbalizing an emotion may activate the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex, which then suppresses the areas of the brain that produce emotional pain.”

 Lea Winerman, American Psychological Association Staff
Story of Guatemalan Worry Dolls
Image of play therapist helping young child communicate emotions using visual images and play.

Using creative, play-based tools to help young children cope with difficult emotions and experiences is not only developmentally appropriate but often one of the most effective therapeutic strategies.

How to Use Worry Dolls

Here is a sample step-by-step way to use worry dolls with your child:

  1. Read or tell a story about the history/legend of worry dolls.
  2. Purchase or make your worry doll(s) (with your child’s input/involvement if you can!)
  3. Invite your child to name their doll(s).
  4. Explain that the doll(s) are non-judgemental listeners and excellent worriers! “They can worry for you while you sleep.”
  5. Empower your child to tell their doll(s) about their worries when they feel afraid or stressed.*
  6. In Guatemalan tradition, children can place the tiny doll(s) under their pillow while they sleep.

*Explain that their doll(s) should never be a substitution for talking with a trusted adult about big worries/problems and instead should be used as additional support.

Please note this is merely a sample. Worry dolls can and should function in the way that best supports your child. For example, some children may prefer to write their worries down on paper rather than saying them aloud. This is perfectly okay!

Printable Worry Doll Story

Printable Guatemalan Worry Doll Story: "The Night Isabel Felt Worried" by Such a Little While

Perhaps you are interested in introducing a worry doll to your child but need some help explaining the concept. This is common!

As a seasoned school counselor, I wrote this simple, relatable printable story to help explain the Guatemalan worry doll tradition in child-friendly terms.

Printable Guatemalan Worry Doll Story:
About the story...
"A modern take on the traditional Guatemalan worry doll legend.  Young kids love this relatable story that both celebrates Central American culture and emphasizes healthy social-emotional learning. "
"One night Isabel's worries become too much!  She's not sure how she'll ever fall asleep until her Mamá gives Isabel her very first  "Muñeca quitapena" 
(worry doll)."
Printable Guatemalan Worry Doll Story: "The Night Isabel Felt Worried" by Such a Little While: You'll receive an 18-page PDF of printable children's story. Includes a BONUS discussion questions handout.

The Best Guatemalan Worry Dolls for Childhood Anxiety

While there are many types of worry dolls on the market, I highly encourage you to honor the Guatemalan tradition by purchasing from Central American artists or organizations that give back to the people of Guatemala.

UPAVIM Crafts

UPAVIM Crafts is my top choice for purchasing authentic Guatemalan worry dolls that support the culture and people behind the long-standing tradition.

A cooperative based in La Esperanza, Guatemala, UPAVIM empowers local women to explore their creative talents, rise above poverty, and seek refuge in an underserved region burdened by gang violence.

When you purchase hand-crafted, fair-trade worry dolls from UPAVIM, you provide Guatemalan women and families with the opportunity to gain employment and education, while improving their safety and health.

Best Traditional Guatemalan Worry Dolls

Here are some of my favorite worry dolls made by the remarkable women of La Esperanza:

Best Worry Dolls for School Anxiety and On the Go

If your child’s worries tend to unfold in a location other than home (e.g., school), you may consider these fantastic alternatives to traditional worry dolls. As a former professional school counselor, I cannot express enough how much a tangible comfort item means to many children!

These small handcrafted, everyday items are not only discrete but can serve as a powerful tool to help your child feel supported and confident during times of daily stress.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Worry Dolls

FAQ #1: “Are worry dolls against Christianity?”

The Guatemalan Worry Dolls Story:
Arial photo of city in the Guatemalan highlands with a Christian cross prominently displayed in the center.
Antigua Guatemala, Sacatepéquez, Guatemala (photo by Saulo Zayas via Pexels)

Worry dolls are a folk tradition that has been around for centuries. People all over the world have used worry dolls, including Christians.

FAQ #2: “Are worry dolls cultural appropriation?”

Cultural appropriation is taking or using things from a culture that is not your own for personal gain, especially without showing that you understand or respect the culture. It occurs across fashion, music, art, and more.

To avoid cultural appropriation when using worry dolls, consider:

  1. Taking time to learn about the Mayan tradition and story behind Guatemalan worry dolls.
  2. Using worry dolls as an opportunity to teach your child about another culture.
  3. Purchase your worry doll from Central American artists or look for organizations that support them.

The last thing you need to know about Guatemalan worry dolls

Guatemalan Worry Dolls Story
Guatemalan Migrant Family Worry Dolls Pin by UPAVIM Crafts
Guatemalan Migrant Family Worry Doll Pin by UPAVIM Crafts

While worry dolls can be an effective tool for helping children through anxiety, they should never replace the loving support of a caregiver.

To learn more about effective positive parenting that empowers healthy social-emotional development, I invite you to join me (and thousands of fellow parents around the world) in taking Such a Little While’s FREE 30-Day Positive Parenting Challenge:

Managing Routines & Transitions in Early Childhood: Positive Parenting Challenge PDF Workbook by Such a Little While
Graphic of free PDF workbook.  Text Reads "Positive Parenting Challenge 3.0, must-know positive discipline do's & dont's, 30 powerful, easy-to-follow tips & tools, unlock 10 key features of positive parenting, customizable parenting solutions, master the art of effective consequences).
    My toddler refuses to brush their teeth blot post, written by Tana from Such a Little While
    Hi, I’m Tana! I’m a mom, certified positive parent educator, and former school counselor. It’s my mission to help you foster social/emotional wellness through positive parenting.

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